Biden’s Putin Challenge
Biden has a clear-eyed view of the threat posed by Russia—but a lot of bad advice to ignore.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden will face tremendous challenges when he enters office, starting with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout. When it comes to foreign policy, China will be at the top of the to-do list along with restoring and reinvigorating badly frayed alliances. Dealing with Russia and its President Vladimir Putin should be high on that list, too.
Russia under Putin poses an existential threat to the United States and other countries of the West, Russia’s neighbors, and his own people. Biden seems to understand that, not least because he has been the target of Russian interference in the 2020 election, including a disinformation campaign tied to Russia that was designed to smear him and his son Hunter.
Earlier this year, Biden wrote, “To counter Russian aggression, we must keep [NATO’s] military capabilities sharp while also expanding its capacity to take on nontraditional threats, such as weaponized corruption, disinformation, and cybertheft.” He continued: “We must impose real costs on Russia for its violations of international norms and stand with Russian civil society, which has bravely stood up time and again against President Vladimir Putin’s kleptocratic authoritarian system.” In an interview with CBS News’ 60 Minutes before the election, Biden said he considered Russia “the biggest threat to America right now in terms of breaking up our security and our alliances.”
These instincts are sound, and Biden likely will appoint officials who think the same way he does when it comes to Putin’s Russia. And yet there are some, such as the signatories of an open letter published by Politico earlier this year, who advocate for a “rethink” of U.S. policy toward Russia and propose having “a serious and sustained strategic dialogue that addresses the deeper sources of mistrust and hostility and at the same time focuses on the large and urgent security challenges facing both countries.”
There should be no confusion about the sources of mistrust and hostility in the U.S.-Russian relationship. For starters, Putin came to power under the cloud of four suspicious bombings in Russia in the fall of 1999 that killed some 300 Russians. In power, he oversaw the brutal campaign in Chechnya that led to tens of thousands of casualties and eventually elevated Ramzan Kadyrov, one of the most brutal regional leaders in the world, to run Chechnya.
Under Putin’s leadership, Russia invaded neighboring Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. It illegally annexed Crimea and occupies further territory in those two countries along with the Transnistria region of Moldova. Putin bears ultimate responsibility for the 2014 shootdown of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine that killed 298 people on board. He supports like-minded authoritarian leaders, including Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, Syria’s murderous President Bashar al-Assad, and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Russian forces reportedly placed bounties on U.S. soldiers’ heads in Afghanistan. In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, Russian hackers launched ransomware attacks on U.S. hospitals and medical research institutions.
Putin is more interested in portraying the United States as Russia’s greatest enemy—to justify his repressive control at home—than he is in improving bilateral relations. He blames the United States for protests against his rule in Russia and for protest movements in neighboring countries. Putin views democratic systems of government as a threat to the authoritarian, kleptocratic system he oversees in Russia. Not only does he not mean the United States well—he actually means real harm to the United States and its allies.
The past several U.S. administrations have been tempted to try to get along with Russia. Former President George W. Bush famously said he looked into Putin’s soul after their first meeting in 2001; toward the end of his second term, Bush sought to patch up relations with Putin—but then Putin invaded Georgia. Former President Barack Obama tried a “reset” with then-President Dmitry Medvedev—but Putin invaded Ukraine in Obama’s second term. President Donald Trump tried personal diplomacy with Putin—and U.S.-Russian relations arguably are at their lowest point in decades.
The problem is Putin. He simply is not interested in any rethink in U.S.-Russian relations unless that was to involve a capitulation on the part of Washington. As long as Putin remains in power, there is little point in spending precious U.S. diplomatic and presidential time and effort in trying to improve U.S.-Russian relations. There is one exception, however: arms control, where the United States and Russia have a mutual interest in renewing the New START agreement, which is set to expire next February. Just as the United States was able to sign several arms control agreements with the Soviet Union while the two countries were rivals during the Cold War, Washington can today find common ground with Moscow while seeing Putin’s Russia as a threat on virtually every other issue. Neither country wants or can afford to engage in an expensive, destabilizing arms race.
In thinking about Russia, the Biden administration would be wise to learn from the mistakes of previous administrations in dealing with the country. The harm Putin has done along Russia’s periphery and beyond requires serious pushback from the West, and the United States must lead this effort, working closely with allies in Europe and elsewhere. Essentially, the Biden administration should develop a policy of containment.
Step one in such a containment policy requires the United States to treat its allies as allies, not as targets to undermine. While there may be disagreements between allies, the European Union and Germany are not threats to the United States, despite what Trump might think of them. Fighting between the United States and its European friends gives Putin openings to widen and divisions to exploit. Washington can disagree strongly with Berlin over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, but a U.S. administration should not view German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of the key leaders holding Europe together, in the same way it views Putin. Pushback against Putin will be much more effective if the United States and Europe work closely together.
Too often, Washington seems to want better relations with Moscow than Moscow wants with Washington. That often makes the United States look desperate and weak when it should wait until Russia is serious about addressing problems constructively. That day may not come for a long time, but it is Russia that needs the West more than the other way around. Trump repeatedly said how great it would be if he and Putin got along. Great for whom? Biden should resist personalizing relations as Trump tried with Putin and Obama tried with Medvedev. No good will come of it.
The Biden administration should be mindful not to conflate the Russian regime and Putin with the Russian people as a whole. Putin pursues policies and actions that benefit him and his corrupt circle, not the Russian population. Whereas Putin views the United States as an enemy, only 3 percent of Russians shared that opinion earlier this year, according to a Levada Center survey (though that percentage inexplicably shot up to 70 percent in a more recent poll).
Biden’s aim to “impose real costs on Russia for its violations of international norms and stand with Russian civil society,” as he wrote, reveals a readiness to pursue a long-overdue policy based on principles and values. Given Russia’s appalling track record on human rights, the Biden administration should aggressively implement the Magnitsky Act, which penalizes Russian officials who engage in gross human rights abuses. The list of victims of the Putin regime’s brutal treatment of its perceived enemies is long. It includes the assassination or poisoning, either in Russia or on Western soil, of the former spies Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and the opposition leaders Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Kara-Murza, and Alexei Navalny.
While the EU recently imposed sanctions on several Russian officials suspected of involvement in the poisoning of Navalny, for example, the United States has done nothing about the case, and Trump has said nothing. Biden must clearly condemn these actions and impose consequences. Ignoring Putin’s abuses only encourages him.
Biden should ignore advice to ease or remove sanctions on Russia until Putin withdraws Russia’s forces from Ukraine, including Crimea. Biden should also pursue sanctions and countermeasures against Russian hacking and trolling. Instead of easing sanctions, he should ramp them up periodically—ideally with the EU in lockstep—and make clear that such measures will continue until Putin changes his behavior.
Biden also should reject any advice to sell out Russia’s neighbors, for example by ruling out NATO membership for Ukraine or Georgia. Washington must respect the aspirations of the people in these countries to join the Euro-Atlantic community. The citizens of the Baltic states, which joined NATO in 2004, sleep better at night knowing they have the alliance’s security guarantees protecting them from Putin’s aggression. The people of Georgia and Ukraine should be entitled to the same. Otherwise, NATO would grant Russia de facto veto power over countries’ interest in joining Euro-Atlantic institutions—and even encourage Putin to engage in further territorial aggrandizement to block other countries’ aspirations.
Biden should show his support personally. Neither Obama nor Trump visited Ukraine or Georgia during their presidency to demonstrate U.S. support at the highest levels for these fledgling democracies. Biden has been to both countries numerous times, and he should include stops there on a trip to Europe. Investing in the success of these countries is a good way to solidify their defense against Moscow. He should also be unequivocal in his support for the people of Belarus in their struggle against Lukashenko.
Finally, the United States must stop enabling Russian corruption. Corruption is Putin’s most nefarious and successful export, and the West greedily imports it. It is encouraging to see Biden stress the need “to tackle the self-dealing, conflicts of interest, dark money, and rank corruption that are serving narrow, private, or foreign agendas and undermining our democracy.” Cutting off dirty Russian money that enjoys the safety of the U.S. financial system and real estate market, and removing its anonymity, would send a strong signal that there is a new sheriff in town.
There is no need for Washington to rethink, reset, or make overtures to Moscow. Clear-eyed analysis and a policy of containment are the best way to deal with the threat posed by Putin’s Russia. Biden’s instincts are sound—let’s hope he and his administration stick with them.
David J. Kramer is the director of European and Eurasian studies and a senior fellow at the Vaclav Havel Program on Human Rights and Diplomacy at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs and a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor.